Less than a year into office, the Duterte administration is confronting a potential diplomatic crisis with China. This time, it isn’t about the usual suspect, the West Philippine Sea, but a new maritime theatre on the other side of our shores: Benham Rise. In a worrying twist to regional geopolitics, the Philippines now faces maritime tensions with the Asian giant on both its eastern and western flanks.
This is definitely not an ideal situation, considering how aggressively the current government has sought to restore trust and goodwill between the two countries after years of mutual acrimony and diplomatic trepidation. Since coming to power, President Rodrigo Duterte has gone the diplomatic extra mile, lavishing praise on China left and right, while downplaying our maritime disputes – and effectively setting aside our landmark arbitration award at The Hague.
Let’s be clear: Those were major concessions on our part, which deserve full reciprocation by China. Restoring good will is a two-way street, and aside from offering major infrastructure projects, which are yet to be confirmed and implemented, what we see is more Chinese confidence in its maritime assertiveness, not the other way around.
In fact, shortly before the Benham Rise crisis captured headlines, the president described China in following terms: “You can really see the sincerity of Chinese so let me publicly again thank President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people for loving us.” This was of course after China offered $200 million partly as an aid for victims of the earthquake in Surigao, communities of which are desperately in need of support for reconstruction and rehabilitation.
In fact, Duterte has been waxing poetic about our relations with China, commending them for “giving [us] enough leeway to survive the rigors of economic life in this planet." And then, we have the news, from no less than Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, that China has been engaged in suspicious activities in the Benhman Rise.
Troublingly, this very troubling announcement came not longer after the good secretary reminded us about the possibility of Chinese reclamation activities in the Scarborough Shoal (Panatag), which would, if ever implemented, be too dangerously close and ‘unacceptable’ to the Philippines.
In an ironic twist of events, China immediately began to lecture the Philippines on the fine details of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – the very convention that served as the basis of our arbitration case, which the very same China dismissed as a piece of garbage paper. According to Beijing, its vessels were engaged in mere ‘freedom of navigation’ operations, and that the Philippines could not claim territorial sovereignty over body of international waters.
How I wish they repeated those very statements to themselves, because that is precisely the root of the problem in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea): an international body of waters, which Beijing is claiming as its own and where it has sought to constrain freedom of (so far, military) navigation for other countries.
And then of course came the president’s bombshell announcement that he actually gave China the permission to do so, which seemingly shocked both departments of foreign affairs and defense, while some local propagandists immediately jumped on their keyboards to parrot the Beijing line to downplay the whole affair.
What's so difficult with understanding that the Philippines has "exclusive" sovereign rights over seabed resources in the Benham Rise, and can exercise jurisdiction over activities of foreign entities in the area? And more importantly, Freedom of Navigation and Right of ‘Innocent Passage’ is one thing, parking your vessels in another country’s continental shelf for months (for supposed oceanographic research) under suspicious circumstances in the area is another.
If ever China were conducting Marine Scientific Research (MSR) in the area, there are two attendant problems. As maritime law experts such as Jay Batongbacal have succinctly argued, MSR activities can be a bit more-than-just-harmless, since they could be used for detecting fisheries and hydrocarbon resources as well as to assess submarine positioning and monitor that of others. In fact, this is precisely what our defense officials are worried about.
Second, the first reason is precisely why a president can’t unilaterally give ‘permission’ to other countries to conduct MSRs – that are inherently dual-purpose and can be inimical to the interest of the Coastal State -- because this has to go through relevant agencies and channels within the Philippine bureaucracy per our constitution and legal rights under international law.
Territorial sovereignty and sovereign rights are both equally important issues. And we deserve a clear explanation on what exactly transpired in the Benham Rise, get to the bottom of what China was really doing there, and clear the fog of confusion due to conflicting messages from various organs of our state. Above all, make it clear to China that ‘restoring’ bilateral relations doesn’t mean us going soft on our sovereignty and sovereign rights.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.